The SoCal Showdown: I Shot An Arrow Into The Air

There are perfect days and then there are perfect days. And one notch ahead of that was the day that I found myself at the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA to witness the USA Archery SoCal Showdown tournament.

It was amazing to consider that I had been at another Olympic training facility just two weeks prior to that, and the environment couldn’t have been any more different. At the Bethesda Center of Excellence a drizzly morning and the mist rising from steam-heated water gushing down the whitewater river course combined to provide an almost surreal backdrop to the Canoe/Kayak Nationals.

At Chula Vista, it was brilliantly sunny and warm, with literally not a cloud in the sky. A very slight cooling breeze topped off the kind of day that needed no studio retouching to go directly to a Chamber of Commerce highlight reel.

But there was one thing that was exactly the same at both venues – Olympic athletes doing remarkable things while making it look effortless. I’m guessing that when I hit Lake Placid and experience a third much different environment, it will be the case with the athletes there as well.

When I arrived, early action in the single elimination tournament was already underway. While still in the parking lot, I heard the P.A. announcer cue the archers to begin this particular round of competition. He also advised them how much time they had to complete all of their shots.

I don’t know why, but as I passed through the entry gate I expected to see a full “medieval castle under seige” hail of arrows in the air. I mean, that’s the way it was in Robin Hood, and in all those Monty Python movies. How much different could an Olympic-level archery competition be?

Well, a lot.

Far from the anticipated flurry of airborne arrows, what I actually witnessed was a group of archers calmly and deliberately lining up their shots and releasing their bowstrings only when they were absolutely ready. It was quality over quantity, and it was perhaps the most tranquil tournament environment I’d ever experienced. At no point however, did I mistake serenity for a lack of focus though, for calm concentration is an absolute hallmark of this sport.

Maybe it’s because they are aiming at something very small that sits 70 meters away. Yes, 70 meters, which translates into 76 ½ yards.

And to give you an idea of the skill level we’re talking about, this competition was not about hitting the target, which is a mere 48 inches wide.

That was a foregone conclusion.

An archery target consists of five different color rings, each further divided in half to create 10 scoring rings. A shot in the inner gold ring is worth 10 points, while a shot that lands in the outer gold ring earns 9 points. The inner red ring carries a value of 8 points, the outer red ring 7, and so on through the blue, black and white rings.

Oh, and right in the middle of the inner gold ring there is an “X”, which is barely larger than the tip of the arrow itself. At this particular tournament, a shot that landed on the “X” didn’t earn any more than the maximum 10 points …but it tended to send a message.

Picture yourself warming up on the driving range for a golf tournament. Somebody walks up to the spot next to you, deposits a dozen balls on the ground and proceeds to drop all twelve practice shots directly onto the 150-yard flag before wiping their club and casually walking away. It’s kind of like that.

For all intents and purposes, the only part of the target seriously in play is the 19 inches in diameter that comprise its innermost gold and red rings. And the Olympians in the competition considered much of that space to be extraneous. The inner gold ring is 4.8 inches wide, and any shot that strays from that area is a disappointment to these folks, to put it mildly.

An area less than five inches in diameter – from three quarters of a football field away. If I can hit my kitchen trash can with a wadded-up wet paper towel from ten feet away, it’s a good morning. And I rarely have to deal with a breeze in the kitchen.

The two categories of competition at the SoCal Showdown were Recurve and Compound, terms which describe the type of bow being used. I learned from a tournament official that the recurve is the more traditional-looking bow, whose two ends “re-curve” back toward the target. Truth be told, I have no idea whether the name has anything to do with that shape, but it sure sounded good, didn’t it?

The compound bow is constructed with small elliptical wheels attached to the top and bottom, which aid the archer by stabilizing the bow’s drawback weight to about 15 pounds of pressure. In contrast, the recurve bow’s drawback weight is entirely determined by how far the archer pulls back the arrow before releasing – the further the drawback, the greater the pressure and heavier the weight to hold.

Compound Category Elimination Round Action

Originally patented in 1966 for purely hunting purposes, the compound bow’s mechanical assistance in reducing drawback weight allowed hunters more time to aim without sacrificing accuracy. With so many hunters buying compound bows, it was only a matter of time before their use transferred over into sport archery.

Today, just as many people take part in compound bow competitions as do recurve archers. Because of its sole reliance on the strength of the archer though, the recurve is the only type of bow used in Olympic competition.

Archery matches takes place with two archers standing side-by-side within the same marked lane, each shooting at their own individual target. A specific amount of time is provided for each to shoot three arrows, which constitutes an “end”. I’m guessing the time limit is pretty generous, because I never saw anyone hurry, nor did anyone I see fail to beat the clock.

Once each archer has taken their three shots, they both walk down to join a scorer at their targets and verify the total number of points each has amassed. The highest total earns two match points for that archer. If there is a tie, each archer receives one match point. The first archer to secure six match points is the winner. If they’ve completed five ends and the match is tied, the archers take part in a single arrow shoot-off – closest to the center wins the match. No pressure there.

One Arrow Shoot-Off In Quarter-Final Match

As I watched play progress through successive rounds, what surprised me was that for the most part each archer fired away when ready, without regard to what the opponent standing next to them happened to be doing. I had assumed that they would alternative shots, so as not to have their concentration disrupted. I was mistaken.

Focus, schmocus. These people wouldn’t have been distracted if a Chinook helicopter landed in the shooting lane next to them. Which was about as likely to happen as one of them missing their target entirely.

To be concluded in next post…

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